F*cking London traffic lights

by Sam Hurrumph, 11 April 2017

London Traffic Lights

Whereas activists who work on the topic of urban London cycling are currently (rightly) concerned with the implementation of the Cycle Superhighways (much needed segregated lanes) and Quiet Ways, I want to think about the use of these spaces. In particular, I want to talk about traffic lights.

That the Cycle Superhighways (CS for short) are well meaning if occasionally badly constructed is no secret. We should celebrate every single one that is created, no matter how bad, as long as it does its main job: make a safe space for cyclists. Even if drainage hasn’t been thought about so they flood, and the speed bumps are a bit steep. There are no CS routes on my regular commute routes, so I rarely have to deal with these issues.

Traffic lights are in abundance on my regular routes, however. And it feels as if there has no thought to the flow of traffic. London is a horrible place to cycle for many reasons, but my frequent hate is the traffic light. Perhaps this is because (like most, but not all cyclists), I pay attention to them.

On any route in an area I know well, I try to ride it through the least number of traffic lights involved. The stop-start of London is so painfully boring. With a single speed, it’s almost akin to taking steroids – you develop got well defined thigh muscles, but your lungs remain far behind as you can’t go more than 5 meters without seeing a traffic light, or having to turn a corner to avoid one. My watch and my bike computer reveal two completely different travelling times. I frequently lose up to 5 minutes on a 20-minute ride just in stopping let alone slowing down and kicking off, again.

And the worst culprits for bad traffic light management frequently seem to be the segregated cycle lanes. For instance, in 2015, Camden introduced protected cycle lanes that go both ways along Tavistock Place and Torrington Place in Bloomsbury. This was born by replacing a two-way single cycle lane into one direction, and taking a lane away from drivers to produce another bike lane (cars can only go East these days). As someone who cycles through this part of town every day I originally thought these new lanes were a god-send.

However, it quickly dawned on me that these new lanes were full of the old inconveniences except now they were going two way. Let me explain. If you start your journey onto from Sidmouth St onto Tavistock Place, going west, the traffic light at one crossing is so out of sync with that on Tavistock Place, there is no way to create any flow. Instead, it produces the London specialty of a race to queue up in front of a red light.

This race to the lights is one of the most annoying aspects of driving or cycling in London. I’ve experienced a similar thing on the CS1, that I cycle on from Parliament Sq to Cable St. While I am joyful that the cycle lane exists (and is pretty good, when its dry), the lights sequences seem to be designed to upset flow, not encourage it.

The problem is that it is not good enough to make these cycle lanes a physical reality, they have to be ones that are enjoyable to use. If you don’t do that, you risk the chance of pushing cyclists back into traffic because there are less traffic lights on particular routes. I frequently ride through the horrendously busy Guildford St rather than Tavistock Place because I have to stop less and so the ride is less frustrating.

I marvel and am shocked by people who can be bothered to do anything more than a five-miles in London. I feel like I have to prepare myself every time I get on my bike. It is a battle. Not only against drivers, but also against other cyclists. It is exhausting. The CS’s and the Quietways are a vast improvement, but they have also been designed with an attitude that cycling is a secondary consideration for transport, not a primary one. This is evident in how cars are expected to go across cycle lanes – by drifting over them, not by actually using their steering wheel. London drivers hate to use their steering wheel. But, that’s another issue. It is also evident in how there is no evident consideration for making the bike lanes flow easily.

As London slowly improves, we cannot allow the powers that be to rest on their laurels (or us to rest on our gains), and continue to see these lanes improved, and that means flow. I want to enjoy cycling in London. I don’t want to chose between a lack of flow or a fight with a cock with a combustion engine.